Call him the sports collector who saved Christmas - at least for a group of nuns with a pricey baseball card.
On Monday, Nicholas DePace (de-PAHTCH-ee), a South Jersey cardiologist and owner of one of America's top sports memorabilia collections, stepped in at the last minute to buy a rare Honus Wagner baseball card from an order of Baltimore-based Roman Catholic nuns hoping to raise money for their ministries.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had been bequeathed the 100-year-old card, thought they had a buyer last month when it sold for $220,000 at a Dallas-based auction house.
When that buyer reneged, auction officials phoned DePace, of Haddonfield, who also bid on the card but dropped out when the price went too high.
Given the circumstances, DePace, a Catholic, quickly changed his mind.
"I wasn't going to let the nuns go without their Christmas gift," said DePace, who seemed to be enjoying the splash his purchase had made.
The nuns were thrilled, too.
"We want to thank him for making our Christmas so bright," said Sister Virginia Muller, Notre Dame's trustee of the card.
Considered the "Holy Grail of baseball cards," the Wagner lithograph was part of a series distributed in tobacco packs between 1909 and 1911. Only about 60 of the cards are known to exist. Wagner, a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and one of the original inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame, had his card pulled from the packs either because of an aversion to smoking or because he wanted more money, baseball historians say. The hockey legend Wayne Gretzky bought a mint condition Wagner card for $451,000 in 1991. That same card later sold for $2,800,000, the highest price ever paid for a baseball card.
A brother of a deceased nun had kept the card DePace bought in a safe-deposit box since 1936. It was in poor condition, the man had written in a note, but would still be very valuable.
The nuns hoped the proceeds of the sale would help finance their ministries in 30 countries, Sister Muller said.
Doug Walton of Knoxville, Tenn., made national news last month as the winning bidder. According to the Associated Press, he owns a string of sports card stores across the Southeast. Walton had 30 days to pay.
"He never returned our phone calls," said Mark Jordan, the consignment director of Heritage Auctions.
Usually, when a bidder does not close the deal, a new auction is held, Jordan said.
But, with "the nuns and the holidays," Jordan said he wanted to get the deal closed right away, so he called DePace, a respected customer.
"I knew he was a Catholic," Jordan said.
DePace was at work when he got the call last week.
"For the nuns, I'll do it," he said he told Jordan.
DePace, 57, has three cardiology offices in Philadelphia and South Jersey, and is a medical author and professor at Hahnemann University Hospital. He has been collecting sports memorabilia for 30 years.
"He's got one of the great collections in the country, probably the world," said Rich Russek, president of Grey Flannel Auction in Westhampton, N.Y.
He has amassed thousands of authentic uniforms and sports artifacts, including game-worn jerseys of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, and Julius Erving; Jim Thorpe's helmet and Bible; and a ball from the legendary 1958 NFL championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.
Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, a patient of DePace's for more than 30 years, gave the doctor the robe and trunks he wore for the weigh-in for his 1971 title fight against Muhammad Ali.
"He's a good man," Frazier said.
DePace also bought a Rocky Marciano robe from a priest. "What comes around goes around," he said.
DePace wants to open a sports memorabilia museum in Collingswood and has had preliminary talks about a possible museum at the site of the Spectrum. The Wagner card will be the centerpiece of any future exhibits, he said.
He's thrilled about helping the nuns, he said. "I feel so good I could climb Mount Everest."
"This is the most famous Honus Wagner card now because it's going to help thousands of people, and that's more than any other Honus Wagner card has ever done," he said.
His office phone was ringing off the hook Tuesday morning with people wanting to sell him their baseball cards.
"One guy wanted to sell a Heisman Trophy," said his receptionist, Laura Singh.
"I'm tapped," DePace said, admitted he probably overpaid for the Wagner card given its condition. "But the nuns are happy and I'm happy. I got a cousin who's a priest at the Vatican, who's really happy. It's a Christmas miracle."